The world championships in athletics are usually held in the capitals of the world. Rome, Beijing, Moscow, Paris and London will take turns hosting the biggest sporting event other than the Olympics.
This year it is being held in the United States for the first time. So how did the world track and field championships end in Eugene, Ore.
The answer to that question involves the evolution of the collegiate governing body over the past 120 years, as well as a few quirks of history and the shoe business that have combined to make Eugene the unofficial capital of American running, or “TrackTown USA.” The city likes to call itself.
It started with Hayward
Appropriately enough, since the World Cup will be held in a stadium called Hayward Field, the story begins with Bill Hayward, the University of Oregon’s first famous track and field coach. (There were several.) Hayward took over the program in 1904, and just 15 years into his 44-year coaching career, the university named the football stadium after him and moved the track there.
Hayward has coached a string of Olympic champions, medalists and world record holders who are familiar to nerds and Jeopardy champions but not to most. Through them, Hayward established Eugene as the best of the best in American running.
Then there was Bowerman and “Pre”
It’s hard to understate the impact Bill Bowerman has had on running and training both in the United States and abroad. That journey began in 1948 when Bowerman replaced Hayward as Oregon’s head coach.
The son of a former governor, Bowerman ran for office in Hayward and later became a high school teacher and football coach. It has produced dozens of Olympians and champions, including arguably the most legendary, Steve Prefontaine.
Prefontaine, or “Pre” as he was and always will be known, grew up in Coos Bay, Oregon, ran at the University of Oregon and at one point in the 1970s held the all-American record in the 2,000-10,000 meters. She was the epitome of rebellious running beauty that captured the zeitgeist, but “Pre” died at the age of 24 in a car accident in 1975, just as she was hitting her stride. The trail in Eugene where many runners will be training this week is the “Pre’s Trail,” a bucket list for any serious runner.
Bowerman was much more than his athletes.
While traveling to New Zealand in 1962 to visit famed running coach Arthur Liddiard, Bowerman learned about the concept of “jogging”—running at an easier pace for both elite athletes and anyone interested in fitness. He is one of those credited with bringing the concept to America, which helped fuel the launch boom of the 1970s.
If that wasn’t enough, he also invented the sole design for running shoes by infusing rubber into a kitchen waffle iron, a design that remains ubiquitous today. And in 1964, he went into business with his ex-Miller to found the shoe company Blue Ribbon Sports, which later became a very successful company – Nike. You’ve probably heard about it.
Bowerman’s great reputation helped Hayward Field cheat at the men’s Olympic trials in 1972. This stadium has never lost its pre-war charm; It had a Fenway Park feel to it. It was the kind of place that signaled that important events were taking place there, and that locals were taking over the place for big competitions, even as track meets struggled to find an audience elsewhere in the United States.
The Olympic trials have been held there six more times since 1972, and now Hayward Field looks more like a spaceship.
The former miler, who along with Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman, wanted something more. Phil Knight often does.
The influence of Nike
Knight never lost his love for running, for running, for his university and for the idea of Eugene, Oren, on the list of Running Capitals of the World.
Since becoming one of the richest men in the world, Knight has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to the University of Oregon’s athletic and academic facilities.
He and his wife, Penny, were key supporters of the $270 million renovation Hayward Field underwent from 2018 to 2020. One of the reasons for pushing ahead with the renovation was to create a proper facility to host the World Athletics Championships.
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Eugene originally bid to host the 2019 World Athletics Championships, but it lost out to the Qatari city of Doha.
In certain circles, this result did not sit well. The United States has never hosted the event, despite the country dominating the Olympics for decades. More teenagers in the US participate in sports than any other sport, but rarely attend professional meets.
Perhaps the thinking went that a major event could change things in the world’s biggest sports market. In 2015, without holding a bid, World Athletics announced that it had awarded the 2021 championship to Eugene.
Then the pandemic happened and changed the global sports calendar. The Olympics were postponed from 2020 to 2021, which pushed the World Athletics Championships back a year. But on Friday night, the nearly 120-year-old event finally opened in “TrackTown, USA.”